Summary: The story of the thief on the cross is one of the most powerful in all the Gospels. But it is possible to get some wrong impressions from what this teaches us.
OPEN: A minister was talking to a professing Christian and asked him if he was active in his local Church. The man responded, "No, but the dying thief wasn’t active in a local Church and he was still accepted".
The minister then asked if the man had been baptized. He said, "No, but the dying thief wasn’t baptized, and still went to Heaven".
The minister then asked if the man had partaken of the Lord’s Table. The man said, "No, but the dying thief never took of the Lord’s Table, and still went to Heaven".
The minister said, "The difference between the dying thief and you is that the thief was dying in his belief, and you are dead in yours".
APPLY: The story of the thief on the cross is one of the most powerful stories in all of the Gospels. Here we have Jesus crucified between two thieves. Two sinners. Two men who, by their own admission, deserved to die on that day.
This is a powerful story, because it was a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah 53. Speaking of the coming messiah, God declared:
“…he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Isaiah 53:12b
It was no coincidence that WHEN Jesus died, He died between two convicted sinners. And it was no coincidence that He was willing and able to grant forgiveness to the one criminal that repented.
There are forceful images here:
One criminal dies with curses on His lips
Another one dies with the promise of hope in his heart
One author described the setting this way: Three Crosses stood on Golgotha’s brow that April. On one, a thief died IN sin and was lost. On another cross, a thief died TO sin and was saved. On the third cross, a Lamb died FOR sin, and was the Son of God.
This whole scene speaks of the love and power of Jesus that He forgave even the worst of sinners and did that at the last moment of life - a death bed conversion if you will.
But as powerful as this scene is, there are wrong messages people get from what took place:
I. One wrong impression is this – you can count on “death bed” conversions.
I’ve heard of men who laughingly declared they were going to live their lives the way they wanted to all the way up to the day when they died… then they’d repent. They jokingly hold to a faith in “death bed” salvation. In their hearts they believe they can count on being saved at the last moment.
Of course, the problem is – you can’t count on that.
ILLUS: The story is told of a famous rabbi who was walking with some of his disciples when one of them asked, "Rabbi, when should a man repent?"
The rabbi thought about that and said, “You should be sure you repent on the last day of your life."
"But," several of his disciples protested, “we can never be sure which day will be the last day of our lives.”
The rabbi smiled and said, “Then answer to that problem is very simple. Repent now.”
You cannot count on when you’ll die, and only a fool would do put their salvation off until the last moment. But, of course, the world has never lacked for fools.
II. Now, in spite of that false belief – that you can wait until your death bed to repent…
…this WAS an example of a “death bed” conversion. The thief was literally hours away from meeting his maker. And his prospects weren’t good. He’d already been condemned here on earth, and there was no way – even if God would accept it – for him to even begin to try to make up for all the sin and pain his life had caused.
His destiny was hell. He knew it. The crowd knew it. And of course, Jesus knew it.
The thief admitted: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Luke 23:41
He was a condemned man. But Jesus saved him anyway. A true death bed conversion.
ILLUS: One man has observed this about the story of the thief on the cross: “God has given us ONE EXAMPLE of a death bed conversion to prove it could be done. But there is ONLY ONE, to prove that we should not presume that it will happen for us”
So the moral here is this: there are death bed conversions… just don’t count on that working for you.
III. There is a 2nd false doctrine that props up when this passage is mentioned.